Magazine

All in the family: Multigenerational professions carry on in Los Altos


European Cobblery, which has a shop in Los Altos, is run by several family members. Front, from left: Owners Paul Roth and wife Desiree Roth, along with son Brandon Roth. Middle: Daughters Jenny Pike and Stephanee Oberhauser. Back: Son-in-law Stephen Oberhauser, son-in-law Richard Corny and daughter Jessica Roth. Photo by Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier

In this ever-changing part of the world, it might come as a surprise that Los Altos is home to a number of businesses and professions passed on from one generation to the next and up to five generations (and counting).

From hearing, dental and legal professionals to local shop owners and a family of cobblers, career interest often was sparked early - in at least one case, on a father’s knee.

Treasuring art of jewelry repair

Brad Davis owns the jewelry repair shop House of Treasures at 188 Second St. in Los Altos. His father, Ray, started a wholesale jewelry repair business nearly 60 years ago in San Jose; Brad’s mother ran the jewelry store part of the business. His sister had a knack for jewelry, too, putting herself through college by working in the jewelry department of Montgomery Ward.

Ray bought the original House of Treasures store on Main Street in 1975. After his father retired in 1991, Brad moved to his current diminutive shop on Second Street in 1996.

Brad started helping out in 1966 as an 8-year-old, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Kirk, who later owned a jewelry repair shop in Eureka.

"I was sitting on (my dad’s) knee learning," Brad said, adding that he loved it from day one. "It was something I really always enjoyed, working with my hands."

As a child, Brad’s first job was polishing, taking over the task from his brother - no longer the low man on the totem pole.

"That’s like the dishes - nobody wants to do it," he said.

From there, the children got to work with then-popular charm bracelets, "because if you 'oops' with the torch," Brad recalled, "you just melted that little ring and you could make a new one."

The kids helped out after school and after supper and made a dollar a week. In elementary school, Brad made and sold brass wire rings for 35 cents (the cost of hot lunches then, he noted). In junior high and high school, he graduated to silver rings with turquoise or malachite to sell to his classmates.

"It was fun," he said. "It’s always been fun."

Setting a family precedent

James H. Dozier was on his third career when he became a lawyer in 1972. Prior to that, he was a U.S. Navy fighter pilot for 20 years and the finance director/treasurer for the city of Los Altos for eight years. He hung his shingle at 180 Second St. - where it still hangs - in 1972, shortly after passing the bar exam.

His son, Joseph W. Dozier, was a grade-school teacher in the mid-1970s when his father inspired him to become a lawyer; he joined the firm in 1981 and they became Dozier & Dozier Attorneys at Law. They practiced estate-planning law together until James’ death in 2008.

Joseph said the storefront aspect of the office has always invited foot traffic.

"My father would routinely stop whatever he was doing to talk to friends and clients who dropped in," he said. "Now that I sit in my father’s old office, at his desk, I find that his outgoing nature has rubbed off on me. I enjoy talking to our old friends and clients who pop in."

Joseph’s wife, Vivian C. Carlson, is a family law attorney and occupies his old office.

Over the years, the couple’s children have worked in the family’s law office on their school breaks.

"My dad would be happy to know that now three generations have carried on at Dozier & Dozier," he said.

Finding the keys to success

John Sansone, owner of Los Altos Business Machines, studied zoology in college and hadn’t planned on a career as a shopkeeper and typewriter repairman.

His father purchased the store, formerly on Main Street and now at 300 State St., in 1968.

As a boy, John helped out by cleaning up for an hour on weekends. He officially began working in the shop after college in 1981.

"I was home … he needed some help, so I came down for the one day," he said of working in his father’s shop. "And the next day I’m home, and he said, 'Where are you? I need help!'"

John settled into his career at the shop, learning about the business side of things from his father and about typewriters from mechanics who specialized in various machines. His wife, Elaine, also works at the store, as did his sister, Peggy Tidwell, until 2008; Peggy co-owned the store with him after their father retired. Two other sisters worked there at various other times.

"So I’m still here," John said. "Up until about 20 years ago, I used to say I was an unemployed zoologist."

Technology gradually changed from manual typewriters to IBM Selectrics and electronic typewriters, he noted. Then word processors were in vogue until personal computers became affordable. In the mid-1980s, Los Altos Business Machines began selling printers, which he said now - along with supplies for them - make up approximately half of the business.

Although the demand for typewriters began declining when computers became commonplace, their popularity has picked up again, albeit as more of a luxury item now, John said.

"That started in about 2009 - young people started to get interested in them," he said. "They’re just amazed - a regular old typewriter. For them to see a lever going up and down, it’s just magical to them."

Hearing the call

Audiologist Jane Baxter, co-owner of Pacific Hearing Service at 496 First St. in Los Altos, is following the path of two previous generations of hearing professionals in her family. Her father, William F. Baxter, was an ear, nose and throat doctor in Los Altos from 1957 until his retirement in 1998.

"He and several other physicians developed Altos Oaks Drive out of an apricot orchard," Jane said.

After serving as a physician in the U.S. Army, William Baxter founded a private practice in Los Altos. He assisted in transitioning Stanford’s hospital to Palo Alto and helped launch El Camino Hospital; he held various positions at both hospitals.

Jane’s grandfather, Frank Baxter, was the first eye, ear, nose and throat doctor in the East Bay.

"(My father’s) practice was a big part of my life from an early age," she said, adding that he sometimes took the children with him on his rounds at El Camino Hospital, where they would play at the nurses’ station.

From elementary school through her college years, Jane took on a variety of jobs at her father’s office, from painting to laying bricks, performing janitorial work, answering phones, scheduling patients and taking histories.

"I always enjoyed doing this work and meeting the patients," she said.

Audiology worked its way into Jane’s career path somewhat accidentally. While studying psychology and education, she volunteered to research deafness and language learning. Subsequent teaching in a classroom with hearing-impaired students sparked an interest in speech therapy.

"But then I took my first audiology class and became fascinated with the miraculous physiology of the human ear," she said. "I couldn’t believe how complex a structure it is in such a small space."

After working at Stanford Medical Center, she became a partner at Pacific Hearing Service in Los Altos in 1986, and for several years she also spent one day a week at her father’s office.

"I loved those years as I got to see him interact with patients," she said.

Carrying on the tradition, Jane’s daughter, Ariel, has become the fourth generation to enter the hearing field. She earned her doctorate in audiology at Northwestern University in 2013, where she is now on the faculty. Jane’s other daughter, Allison, is a pediatrician in New York.

Sharing roots in dentistry

Dr. John B. McBirney is a third-generation dentist. His grandfather on his mother’s side, Leslie Poulson, practiced dentistry in Utah. After attending dental school in San Francisco, John’s father, Leonard, moved to Richfield, Utah, and worked in the practice with his father-in-law. They moved to Los Altos in 1961.

John recalled visiting his grandfather’s office as a young boy.

"(It was a) small town … and people would often go down and hang out at their office," he said. "It was a great foundation as a kid to be in a small town like that. I had that kind of role model for dentistry all my life."

In junior high and high school, John began helping his father with technical aspects of dentistry such as preparing dentures and making plastic models of teeth.

After undergraduate work at UC Davis, he studied dentistry at UC San Francisco.

"It was a good school," he said of UCSF, "(with) traditional and ethical instructors. I learned to do the technical part really well and had the example of people who were honest and had good intentions for their patients."

John stressed that those were the ethics of his father, too: "Do the right thing."

When he joined his father’s Los Altos practice in 1980, John said technology was rapidly changing. Starting with one room and one dental chair, the elder McBirney allowed John to expand and implement new methods and equipment. If the senior McBirney was a bit skeptical of some of his son’s ideas, John said he held his tongue and never held him back. He credits his father’s wisdom, sense of humor and professional experience as guiding forces.

"When you’re young, in your 20s, you have such confidence, sometimes overconfidence," John said. "It needs to be tempered by experience and humility. That’s what he helped me with."

John recently sold his Legacy Dental Care business to partner Jeffrey Diamond, D.D.S., and is now retired.

Devoting their heart and 'sole'

Paul and Desiree Roth of European Cobblery at 385 State St. are the third generation in a family of five generations of cobblers.

Desiree’s grandfather, Gabriel Salvador Oller Sr., came to Palo Alto from Mexico in the early 1920s. Leaving a career with the Palo Alto Police Department, he learned the cobbler’s trade from a local shoe repairer. He opened the first European Cobblery in Palo Alto in 1940. Desiree’s father, Gabriel Oller Jr., took over the business in 1956. The Los Altos shop opened approximately 35 years ago.

The Roth’s four children also are cobblers, and two of their daughters own The Cobblery in Palo Alto and Menlo Park with their husbands. One grandson is a full-time cobbler, and others are learning the trade.

Desiree started in the business at age 14.

"I used to come and hang out with my dad," she said. "I always liked artsy things - sewing, patching."

Although she trained as a dental assistant after high school, Desiree said she would "end up at the shop because my dad needed me, and I just loved being at the store."

Paul worked for the city of Palo Alto for a couple of years, "but again, he’d end up working at the store," Desiree said. Paul also learned the art of shoe repair from Desiree’s father.

A cobbler-in-training begins by "learning what needs to be done to the shoe … learning the dynamics of the shoe," Desiree said.

"It takes years to train somebody," she noted. "Fortunately, we’ve had so many generations in it."

Paul said the young children enjoy learning the trade. They begin by "shining shoes and sewing on the sewing machine and gluing things together and making little projects of their own - it’s like being in summer camp," he said.

Time with family ranks high on the list of the benefits of working in a multigenerational business.

"It’s comforting working together and depending on each other," Desiree said. n

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